The Corner

Why Are People So Riled Up About Zuckerberg’s New-Fangled Philanthropy?

Jesse Eisinger, a prominent left-of-center journalist at ProPublica​, has written a much admired, enthusiastically shared column attacking Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, for having claimed a charitable motivation in devoting the bulk of the family fortune he shares with his wife, Priscilla Chan, to a new entity called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an entity dedicated to advancing human potential, fighting inequality, and much else besides. I don’t share Zuckerberg’s politics, and I have no idea if the Chan-Zuckerberg billions will be spent wisely. Yet Eisinger’s arguments are quite revealing about a certain frame of mind. His basic objection, as I understand it, is that it far better for society to rely on government than on private initiative:

Instead of lavishing praise on Zuckerberg for having issued a news release with a promise, this should be an occasion to mull what kind of society we want to live in. Who should fund our general societal needs and how? Charities rarely fund quotidian yet vital needs. What would $40 billion mean for job creation or infrastructure spending? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a budget of about $7 billion. Maybe more should go to that. Society, through its elected members, taxes its members. Then the elected officials decide what to do with sums of money. In this case, it is different.

One person will be making these decisions.

To understand Eisinger’s perspective, keep in mind that he believes that to improve government effectiveness, all we need to do is tax more and spend more. (For a thoughtful, rigorous, and detailed consideration of this claim, I recommend Peter Schuck’s Why Government Fails So Often. Schuck, incidentally, describes himself as a liberal.) Again, I won’t take up Eisinger’s claim here. You are welcome to decide for yourself if higher levels of infrastructure spending lead to better infrastructure when you consider the productivity of infrastructure spending, or if higher per-pupil spending reliably predicts better performance. 

But I’d say the best way to really see where Eisinger is coming from is to read this 2012 essay by Julian Sanchez on why intellectuals prefer government solutions other kinds of solutions, like those offered by entrepreneurs or charitable organizations. I urge you read the entire essay, which is smart and provocative throughout. If I had to choose a single paragraph that captures Sanchez’s basic thesis, however, it’d be this one:

If the world is primarily made better through private action, then the most morally praiseworthy course available to a highly intelligent person of moderate material tastes might be to pursue a far less inherently interesting career in business or finance, live a middle-class lifestyle, and devote one’s wealth to various good causes. In this scenario, after all, the intellectual who could make millions for charity as a financier or high-powered attorney, but prefers to take his compensation in the form of leisure time and interesting work, is not obviously morally better than the actual financier or attorney who uses his monetary compensation to purchase material pleasures. Both are declining to sacrifice personal satisfaction in order to help others—one has just chosen a form of compensation that can’t be taxed and redistributed easily. If private efforts are ineffectual or relatively unimportant compared with political action, however, the intellectual can rest assured that he’s satisfying his moral obligations by paying taxes and writing persuasively in support of the appropriate political remedies.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it? And in case you’re wondering, Zuckerberg has done an able job of explaining why the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not structured as a charitable foundation. I’m sorry to say that Zuckerberg and Chan will almost certainly use some of their wealth to advance ill-advised left-wing political causes. Regardless, I’m happy to defend their right to use their family fortune to advance their vision of the good life.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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